part four: sisters

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Orc face at the dinner table: three kinds of ugly my pretty sister taught me

My sister is the pretty one. She is the thin one. She is the popular one. She is the dark-haired, freckled, blue-eyed-beauty one.  

I am the other one.

This is how we like to frame the relationship between sisters: they are opposites. There is always the pretty, popular one and the shy, bookish one hiding in her shadow. Most mainstream sister stories peddle this narrative — My Sister’s Keeper, My Sister’s Sister, Sisters — they’re all stories of opposition, one wild child one quiet achiever. They see-saw their way through the story; if one is up, the other must be down — quite literally in the case of My Sister’s Keeper, where the younger sister is born for the sole purpose of donating blood and tissue to her sister who is dying of cancer.

Growing up, this binary structure defined my relationship with my sister, which in turn came to define me. If she was the sporty one, I couldn’t be (even if I did win 2012 CSUFC Female Soccer Play of the Year—my greatest achievement). If she was the emo kid, I couldn’t be (even if I did silently sing along to the sweet, sweet tragedy of Welcome to the Black Parade every night.) And if I was the smart one, she couldn’t be (even if she did get impressive NAPLAN test results, which she felt the need to tell me in detail over dinner a few years back).

The truth is, this is just the patriarchy back at its bullshit, building binaries where they shouldn’t be. This truth, as with all truths, has been proven by Beyoncé. In the introduction to her gorgeous interview with younger sister Solange for Interview Magazine, it is noted that ‘because the media can only think in archetypes or binaries, apparently, Solange was often cast in contrast to her big sister, Beyoncé — Solange as the groovy Dionysian hipster to Bey’s Apollonian majesty’. Defining two complex, powerful artists through this binary framework is reductive and suffocating.

But still the popular, patriarchal conception of sisterhood is two women in opposition: we tie them together by setting them apart. It’s a wily way to infect the relationship with shame, to undermine what should be a strong, supportive, unconditional love by forcing us to define ourselves and this most intimate relationship by our deficiencies. Real sisterhood—in all its forms, biological or otherwise—is love without shame.

This is not to say that sisters should always agree, that sisters who have different interests and styles and body shapes are just the product of the patriarchy. But rather, these differences are not the result of a natural, oppositional and competitive binary. You weren’t genetically predisposed to like olives because your sister doesn’t—maybe you just developed a taste for them after picking them off her plate for all these years.  

When sisters grow together they grow intertwined; tendrils reaching out and filling any spaces left empty by the other, not by deficiency but by their own natural progression in a different direction. In the introduction to a collection of essays titled Sisters, Drusilla Modjeska writes that sisters use each other as a point of reference, ‘each defining the other against the definition made of herself in a complex dance of inclusion and exclusion’. It’s like some sort of ouroboros mould, you both shape and are shaped by your sister.

In the very first rehearsal of my sister feather, I noted the way Egg and Tilly moved around the space and interacted with the furniture during an improv. They were mirroring each other—if one had her hands folded on the table, the other had them folded on her lap. I wrote the words ‘reflection, inversion’.

When you look at yourself in a mirror your features are inverted, but that’s the face you know as your own. You don’t often think that that’s not how everyone else sees you. You might think you look odd in photos because you are so used to seeing yourself in reverse. Sisters are like mirrors, that’s how you use her— to catch a glimpse at yourself, test the limits of your body, measure up your looks, and sometimes just to stare, find every tiny flaw, fill every pore with hate. Then in moments of photo-like clarity, of attempted objectivity, when you encounter a perspective of that person beyond their relationship to you, it can seem incongruous. You have come to understand this person as an image, as a reflection, as an extension of yourself, and now suddenly you realise there is more. There is someone behind the mirror. You have to disentangle yourself, your perspective, from her identity.

This is why sister stories are so sticky—it is naturally and unavoidably a dissection of intertwined identities. This is why they are so important — limiting our understanding of sisters to the binary relationship that the patriarchy desperately clings to is to deny ourselves the full depth and breadth of individuals and the murkiness of the space between them.

Liv has created a beautiful, challenging story of sisterhood and I am so glad and grateful she asked me to be a part of it. She invited me to come on board because I write sister stories, too. We are opposites in this sense: Liv’s stories are about forgiveness, mine selfishness; hers are care and mine are cruelty.  But there was never any shame in this opposition, never a sense of deficiency, and I learned a lot in the space between us.

Selfishly, I’ve spent a lot of time during the process thinking about my actual sister and the lessons I learned from her. The ones that stick most in my chest are three lessons in ugliness.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to pass them on, save you all some time and pain.

one

My sister has the most perfect orc face. Her thin, delicately-freckled nose scrunches up so symmetrically; two identical little folds on either side as her tiny nostrils stretch up towards her wide, glaring eyes. Most people’s nose skin—my nose skin—just collects into little balls of dimpled flesh, like cellulite, when the orc is attempted. But my sister’s nose folds look like the deliberate stroke of a visual effects extraordinaire; simple, symmetrical hideousness befitting any villain of Middle Earth.

She used to pull this face all the time when we were little, usually when we were at the dinner table when I’d just taken a sip of milk. Sometimes she would compliment the look with a mouthful of mashed potatoes, which she would mix with tomato sauce and slowly push out between clenched teeth. My sister is so good at being ugly. Sometimes the little lines would appear when she laughed, too. But only if she was laughing really hard.

My sister taught me what it meant to be ugly, what it meant to know and be in control of your body, to contort it any which way you liked no matter how unbecoming it might seem. This was a fun kind of ugly, a celebration of the elasticity of bodies, of the freedom to twist and shape something new and uncanny out of our skin. Guiding you through the process of becoming a woman in the world, sisters are the gatekeepers of beauty and body. To see them pull faces, burp and fart is to see the falsehood of rigid and oppressive femininity. My sister taught me how to pull my nose up for a piggy face and tuck my lips in for a chipmunk grin; I always thought we looked most alike in those moments of childish, cartoonish ugliness.

It didn’t take long for this familiar, comforting kind of ugly to rear its head in rehearsals for my sister feather. We don’t often see it in the theatre, in our mainstream stories of sisterhood, but this ugliness is precious, a key component of shameless sister love. Put two women in a room and ask them to act like sisters and they will peel off that lead coat of femininity and let the fart noises fly.

two

I don’t remember my first day of high school. But I do remember—in high-definition 3D realness— thirty seconds from the morning of my first day of winter term, the first day we had to wear winter uniforms, plaid skirts with grey stockings. My sister was sitting on the couch, I was standing next to her. ‘Ew!’ she had shrieked, pointing. ‘I can see your leg hairs sticking out.’ I looked down at my legs, then over at hers. A forest of fair hairs was indeed poking out through my stockings. She wasn’t wearing stockings but her bare legs, while covered in goosebumps, were completely devoid of hair. I started shaving my legs the next day.

My sister taught me what it meant to be ugly, what it meant to live under the male gaze and be judged by my appearance. This is a lesson approved and encouraged by patriarchal narratives: sisters should bond primarily over their pursuit of beauty and the affections of men. Movies are awash with montages of older sisters teaching the younger ones how to dress and paint their faces. We are told that the best thing about having a sister is being able to raid their wardrobes. Remember that noughties classic In Her Shoes, where the party girl sister learns to calm down and the straight laced sister learns to loosen up and they meet in the middle and also they both like shoes because they’re girls? (A sexist cliché, but admittedly one of my greatest regrets about my relationship with my sister is that I have size nine feet, compared to her dainty size fives, so I could never take advantage of her significant shoe collection.)

My sister helped me dress for my first date, all the clothes I wore were hers. She did my hair and makeup for my year twelve formal, even though at that time I hadn’t spoken to her in months.  I wouldn’t even look at her at the dinner table, that sacred family space where years ago she’d made me laugh with orc faces, but more recently she’d tried to stab me with a fork. It’s a funny story if you tell it right. Being beautiful was more important than being angry, so I’d had no choice but to stare into her eyes as she painted my face. I couldn’t just stare into a mirror and do it myself because I didn’t know how. She was the pretty one after all, she was the one who used makeup. I was the other one. I looked a lot like her that night, the liner on my eyes and powder on my cheeks matched hers.

Often, this understanding of ugliness isn’t a lesson given but taken through observation. You watch your sister change, shape herself into something uncannily beautiful, and you want to copy her, you want to keep up, keep in sync. It’s strange and scary to feel out of time with your reflection, like in a horror movie when the face staring back at you suddenly moves away.

But it’s a trick of the light, a trick of the patriarchy, to make you think that the only connection between you and this reflection is the way that you look.  This shallowness is a sanctuary when you’re staring down the reality that maybe someone doesn’t just look different, maybe they are different. A shift in your sister is a shift in your sense of self, an earthquake that threatens the foundations of your identity. It’s easier to talk about how someone’s clothes and hair have changed, rather than acknowledge that the person you knew may have disappeared. When Tilly comes face to face with Egg for the first time in decades—when she sees how she’s changed, how different she looks because of how different she is—all Tilly can do is talk about Egg’s weight, Egg’s body, Egg’s cheeks. To acknowledge that the person she left has changed on some deep, fundamental level would be to acknowledge that her reason for staying away has changed, too.

three

I’ve always thought my sister’s face looks ugly when alight with rage. The cold light in her eyes leaps like flames engorged with petrol, and her cheeks rouge slightly as if a virus was taking hold. When she yells she takes the higher registers and I try to keep my voice low, just so people who can hear us can tell us apart. Her anger is hot and dry. Mine is swampy; I cry when I get mad, my face runs with tears and snot and slobber. Always in opposition, equal in ugliness. I can’t give her all the credit for teaching me how to rage, though; my whole family are experts and we used to skill-share a lot.

But my sister taught me what it means to be really ugly: she taught me how to hurt her.

She will probably always know me best, even though we’ve never seen eye-to-eye, never shared interests or the shoe size. We watched each other grow, watched the construction of a being; we’ve seen and heard enough to have a detailed map of every flaw and every weak spot. This kind of knowledge makes sisters uniquely qualified to comfort, but it also means that they know exactly where to stick the knife. They know how to bring you down because they’re the ones who helped to build you.

A younger sister is taught to trust the older one to keep their secrets, to keep them safe. My sister knew to take whispered secrets and scream them back in my face. She wielded shame like a whip, never striking directly but pushing me back, cornering me against a barbed wire fence of my own making. My sister taught me that pinching and biting and spitting and scowling is child’s play—the only way to win the sibling rivalry, the real Battle Royale, is to use these expectations of sisterly love, these sacred pillars of trust, to trap your enemy and let them tear themselves apart.  

Older sisters are taught to guide the younger ones, they always control the narrative and they feed off this sense of responsibility. Liv once said in rehearsals that we are cruel to our family because we know they will always come back to us. My sister believed I would always come back, and she would always be there to guide me. But she taught me too well: I stayed away, I picked up the whip.

I have three unread messages on my phone, all from her. She thinks I should watch this show on SBS at the moment, she thinks I’d find it funny.

I adored my sister when we were growing up, I looked to her for everything. I didn’t know how to be without her, even just to be the opposite of her was to be something. We grew around that dynamic, built ourselves upon it, and then I tore it down, tore away, because she taught me how to play dirty, how to be ugly, how to hurt her. To lose a sister is to lose part of yourself, to lose that reflection that tells you how to be in the world. To deny someone that structure, that safety, that knowledge seems cruel. I know am denying myself something, too.  

Egg and Tilly know exactly where to drive the knife and how to twist it. ‘You haven’t changed’, they tell each other. They say it because it hurts. They say it because it says I still know you best, I am still here, I am still your reflection and if you try to hurt me you’ll only end up hurting yourself.  

As we’ve grown, I’ve grown to look more and more like my sister. I think. It’s hard to tell: I don’t have any recent photographs of us side by side. Last year she sent me a photo of herself at her best friend’s wedding, captured just as she was glaring at her least favourite bridesmaid, I’m told.

‘Don’t you think I look like you?’

It struck me that perhaps this is what I’ve always looked like to her: angry, sullen, with a quiet disdain. So similar to what she’s always looked like to me. I thought we were opposites: she was sleek and sharp and made her way through the world like a hot knife through butter. So hot that it instantly turned the butter bad. Scalding hot, steaming with vitriol. But now sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see her looking back at me: angry, sullen, with a quiet disdain. Sometimes I wonder if the anger she sees in me is mine, or her own mirrored in my features. Sometimes I wonder, am I the reflection, or is she?

But mostly I just tuck my lips into a chipmunk grin and try not to think about it.

Thank you my sister feather for forcing me to think about it.

This is the final essay written by Fi Spitzkowsky in response to the process of making my sister feather.

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